With a new series just around the corner, longtime fan Gabby Hutchinson Crouch takes a look at the sci-fi sitcom to see if it’s stood the test of time.
What and why: In the early 90s, Red Dwarf was a show of many firsts for the adolescent me. It was among the first sci-fi I was exposed to – a genre I’ve loved consistently for the rest of my life. It was one of the first ‘grown-up’ comedies I saw and the first programme I was allowed to watch after the 9pm watershed, if you can remember that being a thing.
It also provided me with one of my first crushes, in the form of one Arnold Judas Rimmer – first in a list of fictional redeemable dickheads I’ve had the hots for during my lifetime, which is now ridiculously long and still getting added to.
If you’ve never seen Red Dwarf, it is a sitcom about a small group of people adrift in space on a spaceship after a radiation leak wipes out almost all of the crew. The only survivors were Dave Lister, who was stuck in stasis for three million years until radiation levels became safe again; his pregnant pet cat, whose descendants evolved into humanoid creatures in the radiation-proof supplies hold and then left the ship, only leaving one particularly stupid cat dude behind; and the ship’s computer, who after three million years alone, has gone a bit senile. Rimmer did not survive the radiation leak. He died, but was brought back as a hologram to ‘keep Lister sane’.
Kryten is the survivor of a whole different spaceship disaster. He’s a robot who mainly cleans toilets. It is, essentially, about hating your workmate, only you’re trapped together with two demented AIs and a guy who licks himself clean. And your workmate is a futuristic ghost.
Sci-fi and sitcom elements sit surprisingly well together, throwing ridiculous situations and funny mundanities at the characters, often at the same time. Fans of the show include Sir Patrick Stewart, who initially thought it was a piss-take of Star Trek: The Next Generation until he saw the programme’s soul.
“The first two series are essentially Porridge in Space. Even the crew quarters Lister and Rimmer share look like a prison cell, with cramped, uncomfortable bunks and a miserable looking chemical toilet.”
Rated or dated: Red Dwarf is not a parody of ‘straight’ sci-fi at all. It’s very much its own thing – a show about a mismatched band of losers stuck together forever in the bleakness of deep space. It started in 1988, and is about to have its latest series, the 11th, aired on Dave, following the BBC dropping the show after series eight. Ten-year hiatus between series eight and nine notwithstanding, that is still a very long run. But has it stood the test of time?
I can tell you right now – yes. And no. Some of the later series lost a lot of the show’s heart, and humour, feeling more like clumsy fan-fiction, bringing back favourites for no good reason other than pandering. Even as a fan, I found those series (mentioning no names, but seven and eight) tired, saggy and embarrassing.
I tuned in to series 10 (actually tuning in to Dave to watch a specific thing rather than seeing what panel show they’re repeating is a weird experience, isn’t it?) with trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised. The show had found what made it Red Dwarf again – the loneliness, the contrast between madcap adventure and the banal everyday, and the importance of character.
To look at what made Red Dwarf great before it lost its way, I rewatched three episodes – one from series one, one from series five, which I consider the show at its peak, and one from series six, when I felt it was beginning to slide.
The first two series are so very different to the rest. They’re essentially Porridge in Space. It’s about isolation, desperation and men trapped together. Even the crew quarters Lister and Rimmer share look like a prison cell, with cramped, uncomfortable bunks and a miserable looking chemical toilet. The quarters, like everything in the early episodes, are painted a shade I like to call ‘dystopian grey’. Proper, bleak British 80s sci-fi. You can really feel the desolate emptiness of the ship in a way that you can’t so much in later episodes.
The series one episode I rewatched was ‘Balance of Power’, in which not just does hardly anything sci-fi happen, hardly anything happens at all.
Lister takes an exam to qualify as a chef and therefore ever so slightly outrank Rimmer, and everyone else just dicks about, pissing what passes as their lives away. The Cat learns how vending machines work and eats so much fish from one he gets sick. Holly the computer mucks about with Rimmer’s projection, for fun.
Rimmer eventually gets round to a poor attempt at making Lister give up on his exam (involving Claire Grogan doing a brilliant Rimmer impression) once he’s finished sleeping in, complaining, wandering about and complaining some more. I love him.
Early Red Dwarf is much more sitcom than sci-fi, but that’s the heart of the show – this early episode is about power structures, class, loneliness and tiny victories. It is also about men and heterosexual male desires. You can’t ignore the fact that’s it’s an incredibly male-dominated show.
It is also, however, a very racially diverse show – for 1988 or even for a sitcom in 2016 – with half of the core characters played by people of colour, including the lead. Lister is a mixed race, working-class, Liverpudlian, space hero protagonist. I don’t think we even consider what a big deal that is most of the time, because Lister is just… Lister. Red Dwarf never goes, ‘look how diverse we’re being, where’s our parade’ – it just presents us with the characters.
The second episode I rewatched was ‘Holoship’ – one of my favourite episodes, not just because Rimmer falls in love with Jane Horrocks’ pouting, impossible sexpot, gets to have sex for the second time ever and be all heroic at the end, and certainly not because Chris Barrie hit the gym before any topless scenes (God bless you, sir).
By series five the character stuff, boredom and loneliness were still there but the energy had been ramped right up. There was more colour and pace, and there’d generally be a monster of the week in every episode. It isn’t dystopian navel gazing any more, it’s a space romp.
What I liked in particular about ‘Holoship’ was that character is still absolutely at the fore. Rimmer is given a moral and emotional dilemma, and in doing the right thing, redeems himself just that all-important smidge. Redemptions for Rimmer are rare and beautiful things. One of the reasons I found that latest series of Red Dwarf satisfying was that it remembered to do this. It’s important to me. Did I mention that I love him?
Lastly, I watched ‘Legion’, in series six, the only ‘on the turn’ series I can bear to watch. It’s the series where they start to bring back Ace Rimmer and Dwayne Dibley for no real reason other than their popularity with fans; there’s no Red Dwarf; they lose Holly, at that point their only regular female character; and they start using recurring jokes like ‘Space Core Directives’, which just grated on me. However, there’s still a lot to like about the series in general, and that particular episode.
“Lister is a mixed race, working-class, Liverpudlian, space hero protagonist. I don’t think we even consider what a big deal that is most of the time, because Lister is just… Lister.”
‘Legion’ was the only episode of my rewatch binge to actually have a monster of the week, and it’s a really interesting, original sci-fi monster. Most of the episode is pure sitcom, though – the characters make fourth wall-breaking jokes about having to face yet ANOTHER monster, but at least this one imprisons them in comfort. They even spend a long scene trying to impress the monster with a wacky, sitcommy dinner party/food fight.
And, at the end of it, in this particular episode, beating the monster comes down to character again – this time, Kryten’s tactical skills and self-sacrificing nature. Dammit, series six still had some very good Red Dwarf.
We will not speak of the wilderness years, where Chris Barrie temporarily left and, without Rimmer to fulfil the antagonist role, the writers decided to make sweet, kind, clever Kryten a whiney dickbag, and kind of a misogynist.
And now we’re approaching series 11 which – if it’s anything like series 10, should have adventures and loneliness and bleakness and excitement, with decent character work over fan service.
The actors may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but while the heart of it remains a noble, romantic slob, a redeemably douchey, stuck-up dead guy, a clever, caring toilet-cleaning droid and a delightfully narcissistic super-evolved cat stuck together in the void, it will remain a good sitcom, good sci-fi and good Red Dwarf. RATED.
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Gabby Hutchinson Crouch is a comedy writer, mum & nerd. She writes for BBC Radio Comedy and Huffington Post UK, and once saw Dawn French coming out of a toilet.